You can also use this link to access an unlisted YouTube video of my talk. Sorry I couldn’t be there in person!
Here’s the expanded text of my talk:
Communities or Island Nations?
Hi, I’m Samantha Allen, you may know me as the co-developer of BLOCK PARTY, the game I made with Maddy Myers which changed the medium forever. I want to apologize for not being in San Francisco with you all; I have to be in New York right now.
When Critical Proximity’s call for submissions first went out, Patreon was first starting to spread through games criticism, especially queer, feminist and allied games criticism. But there was a simultaneous, almost nostalgic undercurrent that accompanied the rise of Patreon: a conversation about community. Were we a community? Had we ever been one? How could we be one?
The story went that, in the past, we had tried to consolidate our eggs into a handful of baskets: The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Re/action Zine, etc. but we realized we could only make it if financially we fended for ourselves and began crowdfunding our own individual careers.
But still, even as new Patreons sprouted by the day, there was a mourning period, if only for the lost dream of a critical community.
In these few minutes, I want to ask: What does it mean to be part of a community? How does the social media we use shape or constrain the kinds of communities we can form? Were we in a community? Do we want one?
As I approach these questions, I am acutely aware of my own position in games criticism. Games criticism, for me, is, from a financial perspective, a source of supplementary income; some writing I get paid for, other writing I do for personal reasons. I receive substantial institutional support from my day job as a doctoral candidate at Emory. That institutional support is substantial but not permanent: in one to two years, I’ll be looking for a new direction on much less certain footing.
So as I make some observations about games criticism and crowdfunding, I want to be clear that my ass is not presently on the line. I want to make some observations about crowdfunding but I’m not critiquing anyone’s attempts to make ends meet; crowdfunding, as many of you know, has been life-saving for me personally.
This is not a scholarly presentation, this is not a proclamation or a manifesto or a series of judgments. I’ve just been gathering thoughts, musings, experimental ideas about the way that this conversation around community has unfolded over the last year and I want to spark some introspective conversations. So I’m just going to make five observations:
Observation #1: Twitter and Patreon are not community-building technologies.
Twitter and Patreon are both about building and sustaining personal brands, compelling brands to be sure, but still irreducibly personal. These brands can have effects that far outstrip our expectations. I’m always surprised when I meet someone who expects me to be larger than life: some princess riding around on alpaca, when I am, in fact, a girl with scraggly hair who eats a lot of buffalo wings. Twitter is an inherently individualistic technology that seduces us with its ability to brand ourselves and seduces others with our brands
Patreon, on the other hand, is essentially a monetized Twitter with dollar signs instead of followers. Some Patreon supporters donate money in order to receive promised products; others just want to demonstrate that someone’s contribution, presence, indeed survival in the game space is appreciated and valued. I’ve been deeply gratified to see that Patreons are starting to help out folks who were not finding places at paid publications.
But in terms of community, Patreons are establishing critics as island nations. It’s a necessary but also profoundly individualistic mode of establishing your presence. To be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if we are simultaneously yearning for some form of community, we should be aware that Patreon can shape the way we understand that community and limit the possibility of working towards it.
If we do want to feel like we have a “community” of games critics, the most salient technologies in our field can’t be their foundation. That community needs to be decoupled from both our favorite mode of communication (Twitter) and the crowdfunding method of the day (Patreon).
Observation #2: Folks need to be a part of a lot of different communities. You can’t expect queer, feminist and allied game critics to form your only or even your primary community.
I work in a Women’s Studies department. At one time, Women’s Studies departments were feminist bastions for community and solidarity on deeply patriarchal college campuses. As Women’s Studies has slowly depoliticized and institutionalized itself, that built-in sense of community has eroded.
Some graduate students enter my own department, for example, expecting to find and build feminist community within it and they’re sorely disappointed. It’s a great place to make friends, sure, but not a place to sustain your feminist activism. I have had to accept that Women’s Studies is my workplace but not necessarily my community; much of my time in graduate school has been spent building communities elsewhere in my life.
Twitter is just not enough. I encourage folks in games who are looking for queer, feminist and allied community online to also find and meet local feminist and LGBT groups, and to connect with folks in other areas of their life. Queer, feminist and allied gaming circles can be vital for relationship building and community formation, but folks need to have multiple sources of community and sustenance in case one of them falters or becomes less reliable.
Observation #3: Communities have to be intentional; they don’t arise organically from shared interests.
Communities are not composed of people working in parallel on similar projects. Community-building is what happens when people work together on the same project. Just because a handful of folks are all, say, trans women game designers does not mean they are part of a community. If our desire for community is earnest, then people need to do work together.
Back when my day job was less intense, Zoya Street and I wrote a couple of entries in a series on The Border House called “Bunk Bed,” a series that focused on issues of gender and sexuality in which we both separately recorded responses to the same game and then compared them to each other.
In the process, we produced pieces that were engaging for our readers, we learned and grew from each other’s perspectives, and we caught the attention of the games’ developers in the comments section. We created a platform where we grew closer together as critics while also giving the developers some food for thought.
I don’t think community is something you can be a part of; I think it’s something you have to do. I don’t consider myself to be part of a community, but when I have the time to do a project like “Bunk Bed,” I feel like I’m building community. If we still want something that feels like a community, it will require mutual investment and collaboration.
Observation #3: Funding efforts are always going to be exclusionary. Communities coupled to funding are always going to reflect those exclusions.
The structure and demographic makeup of sites like Kotaku and Polygon are lopsided, asymmetrical, and reflective of the systems of power in which they are situated but Patreon is not a panacea for these problems. Some Patreons are wildly successful; others have floundered or faded into obscurity.
If we think of modes of financial support as foundations for queer, feminist, and allied community, we’re always going to reflect certain problematic exclusions. If an inclusive community is what we want, we need to build it across or apart from particular publications and sources of income.
Observation #4: In-person communities have built-in mechanisms for dealing with conflict that online communities lack.
In in-person queer, feminist, and allied communities, conflicts must be dealt with because people see each other: they cannot be blocked, hidden, or ignored in any sort of categorical way. When something happens, it has to be addressed for social lives to continue.
Inasmuch as conflicts and infighting have certainly fractured queer, feminist, and allied communities of game critics, we should be aware that this fracturing is a result of the fact that online, our conflicts can stagnate, fester, and divide us without anyone feeling motivated to resolve them. They can just SIT THERE. Building community online isn’t easier because modes of communication are more immediate; it’s harder because we can ignore conflict.
Observation #5 is my last observation and it’s just a closing question: Do we want community? Did we ever want it? Was our proclaimed nostalgia and is our stated yearning for community earnest, or does it reflect a desire for something else: emotional fulfilment, friendship, appreciation, financial support? What is it that we want when we say that we want to feel like a part of a queer, feminist, and allied games criticism community? Is community a goal, or is it a placeholder for something else?
Thanks. And have a great Sunday!